This is part one of a three-part series examining the effects of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project on St. Louis and its suburbs. Part two looks at residents' fears that a spate of infant deaths might be linked to toxic waste. Part three explores the potential implications of an underground landfill fire moving toward a toxic waste site.
HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Karen Nickel had never even heard of lupus before she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease six years ago.
Today she says she takes as many as 18 pills a day — “and that’s just to make me feel OK.”
“Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed,” Nickel said. “Sometimes I can’t even let someone hug or touch me because it hurts so bad.”
Lupus causes a patient’s immune system to turn on its own body, attacking healthy joint and organ tissues. It is most common in middle-aged women such as Nickel, but has recently been linked to exposure to uranium.
That’s what Nickel thinks caused her lupus. She’s since found out that at least three other people from her childhood neighborhood also have the disease. They all grew up in a neighborhood bordered by a suburban St. Louis creek that was contaminated with nuclear weapons waste for decades before any cleanup operations started.
There may still be radioactive waste in the creek, which regularly floods parks, businesses, and neighborhoods — most of which have never been tested for radioactivity and remain open to the public with no notification of the potential risks.
Uranium ore used to make the atomic weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was processed in downtown St. Louis, which hosted the country’s only uranium plant until 1951. In the decades following the end of WWII, hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste were haphazardly stored, shuffled around the region, illegally dumped, and sometimes left unaccounted for. As the metropolitan area expanded, suburban communities — such as the one Nickel’s parents moved their family to in 1973 — were built downwind or downstream from contaminated areas, government documents show.
After years of government reorganization, the contaminated sites in the St. Louis area have been targeted in cleanup campaigns led by various government agencies, and officials have long maintained there is no immediate threat to human health. But many in the community disagree with that claim, pointing to a trail of rare cancers, autoimmune diseases, birth defects and infertility that span generations and are known to be linked to prolonged exposure to radiation — and some government agencies are starting to take notice.
The way locals see it, St. Louis is burning — and nobody is paying attention.